8 Language Guides Beliefs: Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

Language is the pressure point here—language is what we can change, to guide and redirect the mindset. The language we use contributes heavily to the attitudes and mindsets we have. The culturally dominant view in the U.S. about what intelligence is can be described as a fixed mindset: the idea that intelligence is on a linear scale, and people fall somewhere on that scale and cannot budge from it. When someone has a fixed mindset of intelligence, they are more likely to think about their intellectual abilities in black and white terms. A student would use language like “I am not smart” or “I can’t do it.” A fixed mindset constrains and limits a person’s ability to accomplish things, because of their own beliefs about themselves.

The alternative to the fixed mindset on intelligence is the growth mindset, studied extensively by researchers Dweck & Yeager (2019). A growth mindset is the belief that that intelligence can be strengthened and expanded through dedication and hard work. This way of thinking encourages students to note that abilities are things that can always be learned and improved, no matter where your starting point is. The shifting away from fixed mindset verbiage to language in line with a growth mindset can have wonderful effects on students, including improved grades (Thibodeau, Hendricks, & Boroditsky, 2017). This focus on the capacity for self-improvement could also be a very healthy way to develop a higher sense of self-esteem and happiness (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs (2003).

When a student holds a fixed mindset of intelligence, having to give a high amount of effort in school makes them think that the task is beyond them, and they aren’t naturally “smart enough” to get it done with ease. This kind of thinking can cause a person to perceive challenges as impossible, and makes a person less motivated to continue on with the challenge (Dweck & Yeager, 2019). In this way, the fixed mindset undermines struggling students, causing them to exert less effort, rather than more.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, commends students for applying themselves, and it encourages them that their hard work is valuable and really pays off. Dweck & Yeager (2019) suggest that when students believe they can improve their abilities, they are more likely to take on challenging learning goals, and their effort toward the challenge can be seen as a helpful tool in the process. Additionally, setbacks can be viewed as part of the learning curve and simply inform the learning process. When a student believes all of these things, they are equipped to persist through academic challenges.

Learning a growth mindset of intelligence also helps students make the connection between their hard work and the outcome that comes from it. Once a student feels encouraged and motivated by growth mindset beliefs, it can change the course of their engagement in school. A growth mindset does more than simply commend efforts, but also promotes awareness within students that the quality of their engagement with school matters, too. Helping students make the connection between higher quality of engagement and achievement outcomes gives students a higher sense of self-efficacy: they can feel accomplished by seeing how the increased quality of their work leads to improvements in academic success.